And you thought you were a food lover.
You may have to reconsider.
Some of your fellow North Jersey residents are, well, obsessed with food. They are willing to spend a fortune on a meal, drive hours for a good burger, know where the best burritos are and which chef is working where.
These serious eaters try anything at least once. They eat to live, travel to eat and think, talk about and dream about food. They also love to cook, collect cookbooks, and relish experimenting in the kitchen.
Meet five of the most passionate, most ardent, most enthusiastic, most avid food lovers in North Jersey. Due to their epicurean zeal, you just might have to up your gastronome game.
Justin Elmini, Pompton Plains
Justin Elmini’s obsession with food started in middle school.
That’s when Elmini happily discovered that there was “more to life than pot roast,” he said. His parents were good, but not particularly daring cooks. “We ate very basic early ’80s Americana food: roast beef, roast chicken, pot roast and Friday was pizza night.”
That American fare was not being dished out in the homes of his ethnically diverse friends. “Everything was so different,” he said.
And though he was “always hesitant to try things” at home, at his friends’ homes he found himself more curious than reluctant to take a chance.
“I started trying more and more things,” said Elmini, a 48-year-old optician and father of one who lives in Pompton Plains. “The more I tried things, the more things I liked.” By his 20s, he said, he was gung-ho to try anything. He also began to understand the value of food. “Certain things cost more and are worth it.”
Some of what he’s tried over the years: sweetbreads, pig’s ears, chicken heart salad, duck hearts, kidneys, tripe, fish eyes, monkfish liver, snake, kangaroo, ostrich and elk.
“I’ve never hated anything,” he said.
He loves restaurants. He eats out twice a week. Among his favorite local spots: Viaggio in Wayne, Fascino and Samba in Montclair and Felina in Ridgewood. His favorite special-occasion spots: Restaurant Latour in Hamburg, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, and Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Aldea and Restaurant Daniel, all in Manhattan.
His favorite meal of all time? A chef’s tasting at Le Bernardin, a Michelin three-star seafood restaurant in Manhattan, where he and his wife celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. “Everything was amazing,” he said. “There is nothing they could have done better. It was brilliant.”
The cost? $1,000 per person.
“I don’t mind spending good money on good food and good service.”
Elmini loves to cook too.
“I like to experiment with my cooking as much as I love to experiment with my eating,” he said. “I try to make Indian and Thai dishes. I will try to cook duck different ways. I will try to make my own foie gras. It’s fun for me, almost like therapy.”
When the book “50 Shades of Grey” came out, Elmini decided to make his wife, Suzanne, a meal based on the food and wines featured in the book. He made the exact same beef Wellington and the same winter green salad with warm vinaigrette featured in the book. “I spent the day doing it. It was exhausting and time consuming.” But, he said, “my wife to this day appreciates it.”
His wife is his eating buddy — most of the time. “She’s not as adventuresome. She doesn’t like surprises, and she doesn’t drink.”
So Elmini has put together a posse of five to eight food lovers to join him on dining adventures. He’s hoping they’ll become a less restricted North Jersey version of the Gotham Burger Social Club, a group of men in New York who get together to dine, photograph and rate burgers; Elmini’s group, however, will search out restaurants that offer a lot more than burgers. They’ll be seeking out special tasting menu dinners, a collection of dishes that highlights a chef’s skills often paired with wines.
“I love tasting menus because I like to have little samples of everything,” he said.
He would also like to chow down in different parts of the world. “I have eaten well but I am not well-traveled. My must-go to places will be via traveling next. I’ve never been to the West Coast, to Napa. I want to hit some of the big guys there.”
Kevin Kretz, Rockaway
Kevin Kretz recalls the first time he had asparagus that didn’t come out of a can or wasn’t cooked to a near pulverized mush. He was in college — Rutgers University — working at a restaurant and, he said, the stalks were simply grilled.
“It wouldn’t have been an earth-shattering experience if the vegetables I grew up eating hadn’t looked like something they pull out of the river at the beginning of a Law & Order episode,” said Kretz, 51, a Rockaway resident and systems administrator for a Manhattan-based financial company.
His mom was such a bad cook, he said, “she once cooked a cake that was so tough, the family threw it around as a frisbee for the afternoon.” He grew up eating pizza and burgers.
He’s made up for the overcooked, soggy vegetables, stiff cakes and unhealthy junk food by embracing gourmet foods and good wines. He learned about both by working at restaurants, especially Stage Left, a highly regarded steakhouse in New Brunswick with an award-winning wine cellar. He estimates he eats out once every week or two.
“It got me exposed to wine,” he said. “Wine is probably my favorite hobby,” he said. “Wines have cost me more than motorcycles passion.” (Motorcycles, he said, are his other passion besides wine and food.)
He also discovered how good food can taste. “I realized vegetables weren’t bad.”
And how delicious sea urchin, foie gras, monkfish liver, sweetbreads and a host of other out-of-the-ordinary foods served in upmarket restaurants can be. He has eaten at some of New York City’s best restaurants including Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin. “If traffic was bad going home, I’d park my car and eat at Le Bernardin’s bar. The thinly pounded tuna with foie gras on a baguette is crazy good.”
He’s feasted in top Paris restaurants including Michelin two-star Guy Savoy (“Had a truffle and artichoke soup that I’ll never forget”), Le Comptoir ( “bistronomy” chef Yves Camdeborde’s wildly popular bistro), Boutary (a caviar lover’s dream-come-true) and Opium, La Cabane (a seafood restaurant famous for its oysters). In Las Vegas, he feasted in Raku, a Japanese restaurant. “My coworker tricked me into eating tofu,” he said. “I found out that I like tofu.” And in Lyon, he enjoyed a 7-course, 6-hour meal at Auberge de l’lle Barbe. “It’s a Michelin two-star with maybe five tables. We got there at six and left at midnight.”
And in New Jersey? He still recalls eating at The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station when James Beard award-winning chef Craig Shelton manned the kitchen. (Shelton is only one of two New Jersey chefs to ever win a James Beard award; the other is Maricel Presilla, chef at now shuttered Cucharamama in Hoboken.) “I got the tasting menu but did not go with the wine pairing. I picked my own wine. The chef came out because he wanted to know who was choosing these wines. We ended up being the last customers there. We talked and he kept wanting me to try different wines. He gave me a bottle to take home. That was a memorable meal.”
His favorite New Jersey spots currently? Stage Left, Viaggio in Wayne, Bistro Seven Three in Bernardsville, Ninety Acres in Peapack, Reservoir Tavern in Boonton, Battello in Jersey City, South + Pine in Morristown and Cafe Chameleon in Bloomingdale.
He estimates he eats out once every two weeks, sometimes more often.
As for cost?
“When you go to a good restaurant, you know beforehand how much it is going to cost you. You are ready for the bill.” He adds, “It’s significant money but I’d rather go half as often than go to places that are half as good.”
Mel Ibarra, Springfield
Mel Ibarra credits her culture for her profound passion for food.
“I’m Filipino,” said Ibarra, a mother of a 7-year-old boy and senior video producer for njdotcom, who grew up in Edison and today lives in Springfield. “Our culture just loves to feed people. If they don’t eat with you, it’s an automatic disapproval. Food is intertwined in our culture.”
And she wholeheartedly has embraced her culture and food.
Her dad’s nickname for her? Takaw, which in tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, means, “girl who eats a lot,” she said. “I was never one of those girls who watched her figure.”
Even before there was Instagram, Ibarra began to photograph and videotape food. While in college — Rutgers University (“I’m a super-Jersey girl”) — she began a private Facebook page for friends and family called Calamari Chronicles.
“Calamari was my go-to appetizer. And it is served in so many different ways — thick, thin, breaded, in a sauce. Plus no one covers calamari.”
Her friends and family loved it. So it seems did Thrillist, the online food website that hired her to be a video producer. “My passion was now also my 9 to 5 job.”
For the job she taped and ate lots. She recalls a stint of consuming lots of wagyu steaks, too often covered in gold flakes. “My gold flake intake was off the charts.” She consumed one $400 steak covered with 24-karat gold at 212 Steakhouse in New York. “The steak was good, under the gold.” When she learned there was a $140 wagyu steak sandwich at New York’s Don Wagyu, she made a beeline there. “I research, do a videotape and then eat.”
In 2019, she began her current job at njdotcom as a senior video producer.
“I spend all my free time either being with my son or eating,” she said. “If I didn’t have a child, I’d be eating out seven days a week. My priorities are: son first, food second, then everything else.”
Ibarra turns all her vacations into “foodie adventures.” When she goes to visit her in-laws in Houston, she said, she makes a Google document with the restaurants she needs to “hit up.”
“My husband gets mad because he has to wait so that I can take pictures before he can touch the food,” she said.
When two years ago she went to a wedding in Portland, Maine, she made sure “to schedule a foodie day” to eat lobster rolls and hit Holy Donut, a wildly popular artisan doughnut shop.
“I love everything,” she said. “I don’t have a favorite cuisine.”
She doesn’t however particularly like to cook. “I’m health conscious,” she explains. “All the ingredients that make food delicious I’ll cut out — so I won’t fry, I won’t caramelize, use extra sugar. But if someone else prepares food for me, then I don’t care. I’m happy.”
She is a proud member of the clean-plate club. “I don’t like to waste food.”
No matter how much food she is served.
Her favorite meal ever was the 13-course extravaganza at Pasta Ramen, a by-invitation-only Italian-Japanese fusion spot in North Jersey. “I ate everything.”
She does not have a favorite cuisine, though of course she loves Filipino food. Among her favorite Filipino restaurants are Leah Cohen’s Pig and Khao on the Lower East Side of New York, New York City pop-up So Sarap, and Mama Fina’s in Elmwood Park and New York City (“the sisig at Mama Fina’s is one of the best I’ve ever had.”).
Food, she said, is the first thing on her mind when she wakes up. And why not?
“It can turn a crappy day into the best day ever.”
Greg and Kaitlin Dalakian, Boonton
If you need proof that Greg and Kaitlin Dalakian are obsessed with food, step into their dining room. The couple has covered two walls of their dining room with framed tasting menus of great restaurants where they’ve eaten. “It’s so cool,” said Kaitlin. “If we have to, we’ll extend into our entire hallway.”
If that isn’t sufficient, check out their food-centric Instagram account @excessiveeaters, a name they came up with after they returned from their “culinary awakening” trip to California in 2016, eating at some of the nation’s, if not the world’s, best restaurants: The French Laundry in Yountville, Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Sierra Mar in Big Sur, Napa Rose in Disneyland and now-shuttered Maude in Beverly Hills. When they shared their vacation photos with Greg’s parents, his dad, observing that at least every other photo was of food, deadpanned, “This is a bit excessive.”
The couple, who are music teachers — he is the band director at Parsippany High, his alma mater; she owns a private voice studio in Boonton — couldn’t agree more. They are obsessed with food. Studying it, cooking it, eating it, and lately even foraging for it.
“I’ve gotten into foraging,” Kaitlin said.
They got into cooking soon after they met in 2011. “It was a way to save money,” Kaitlin said.
“I was the zester at first,” Greg said. “It was the only job I was allowed,”
Then they began to explore restaurants. Their first chef’s tasting dinner was in 2013 at Elements, a fine-dine restaurant in Princeton considered one of New Jersey’s best. They could barely read the menu.
“We were Googling at the table,” Kaitlin said, “trying to figure out what foie gras and sweetbreads were.”
They ate it all — with relish. And have gone on to eat at many more first-rate restaurants. Their most fantastic meals, they said, were consumed at Atelier Crenn, Alinea in Chicago, Per Se in New York, Zahav in Philadelphia and Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“It’s why we went to Scandanavia,” Kailtin said. It was their most expensive meal thus far: $1200 a person “and that doesn’t include the flight,” she said. “We don’t advertise that.”
She added: “We certainly didn’t at first but now we understand why you spend a lot of money on really good food.”
They didn’t pay anywhere near that much to eat chef Robbie Felice’s food at Viaggio in Wayne and Greg said, “I’d put Robbie’s chef’s tasting up there with the best of the best.”
They are big fans too of Felina in Ridgewood, South + Pine in Morristown, Mistral in Princeton, Common Lot in Millburn, Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell (“it’s got good bar food,” Greg said), and Sharky’s in Clifton and Boonton (“for great wings”).
Before the pandemic, they ate out once a week, During the pandemic, they mostly cooked in.
“I lost 30 pounds,” Greg said, “probably because we didn’t go out to restaurants.”
But that’s not stopping him or her from dining out.
The couple already reserved a table at Intersect by Lexus, a sleek restaurant operated by Lexus in New York’s Meatpacking District that features a rotating lineup of internationally celebrated chefs.
No doubt, they’ll end up with one more menu for their dining room wall.
Esther Davidowitz is the food editor for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.